By Joe Scalzo
On Wednesday afternoon in Venice, Fla., Al Burns was at a picnic with some departing snowbirds when talk turned to the Mike Rice saga at Rutgers.
“They knew I had coached, so they asked me about it and I said, ‘Well, I must tell you, the kid was one of my former players,’ ” said Burns, the former Boardman High basketball coach who now lives in Florida. “They said, ‘What?’ They were shocked.”
Rice’s behavior made national news, but it wasn’t news to Burns. Rice may have been one of the best players to come out of Boardman High in that era, but as Burns can tell you, “He was a difficult kid to coach.”
“He was very competitive and he couldn’t hold it back,” Burns said in a phone interview Wednesday. “There were a number of incidents with him where I had to sit him down. I threw him out of the gym on a number of occasions. I tried to curb his swearing and his temper, but it was always there.
“We had a heck of a career with him and I think it was because I was there to sit on him. He was too emotional for the game.”
Rice, whose father coached at Youngstown State from 1982-87, was a three-year starter for the Spartans, earning All-Steel Valley Conference honors in 1987. Rutgers fired Rice on Wednesday after a videotape surfaced showing him screaming and throwing basketballs at players during practice.
Burns said Rice’s behavior at Rutgers was a disappointment for him, for Boardman and for the school’s basketball program.
“I think he made a grave mistake,” Burns said. “I know down the road he’s going to be extremely sorry for it.
“You look at all the great players that have come out of our place. I am extremely proud of the kids that have gone on and done well.”
D.J. Ogilvie, who was Rice’s classmate and fellow All-SVC honoree in basketball, said Rice’s outbursts at Rutgers “didn’t shock me.”
“He was very competitive, very aggressive,” said Ogilvie, the former Boardman High coach who now coaches in Englewood, Fla., not far from where Burns lives. “Being his friend and his teammate, I loved his intensity and his competitiveness. I knew he would fight for his team and do whatever it took.
“That said, I can’t defend him. As soon as you put your hands on a kid, you’re opening yourself up for criticism. On the other hand, I’ve seen coaches grab players by the facemask. That’s just the way they coached.”
Ogilvie was also an All-SVC football player who later played football at Bowling Green. He said society has changed since the 1980s, when it wasn’t uncommon for coaches to get physical with players. He thinks it was part of growing up in Youngstown, where you were taught to be tough and respect your elders.
“You look at Bo Pelini at Nebraska and how intense he is and the Stoops [brothers],” Ogilvie said. “Everybody in Youngstown is tough and aggressive. But the way society has changed, coaches have to change.
“Obviously, I think Mike went overboard on some things but I also think part of the problem is the media sensationalizes it and dramatizes it. It bugs me how ESPN and the governor stick their nose into it. People will probably criticize me and I’m probably in the minority, but I think people are going overboard.”
Boardman’s athletic director, Dave Smercansky, was an assistant freshman coach when Rice was a senior at Boardman. He remembers Rice as a hard-nosed basketball player, “probably one of the better ones we ever had,” he said.
“He loved basketball and he lived in the gym,” Smercansky said. “I know his drive to be a successful basketball coach was all about competition. He expected that same type of competitiveness out of his players and maybe he crossed the line.”
Like Ogilive, Smercansky believes tough coaching made him a better athlete and a better person, but he knows society has changed since he was in high school.
“I think sometimes people get a little defensive when somebody yells at a kid but in this particular case, if what they said he said [to his players] was true, he crossed the line,” Smercansky said. “Obviously whipping basketballs at kids crosses over that line.”